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Officer in CBI net ropes big fish for prime Mumbai plot

What might the chief of naval staff, a Shiv Sena MLC, a promoter under CBI investigation, IAS officers, a local army commander and ‘Kar...

Written by SAMAR HALARNKAR | Mumbai | August 3, 2003

What might the chief of naval staff, a Shiv Sena MLC, a promoter under CBI investigation, IAS officers, a local army commander and ‘Kargil Heroes’ have in common?

The desire to get a flat in one of India’s costliest swathe of real estate at the tip of south Mumbai, Cuffe Parade, where two-bedroom flats can cost you upto Rs 2 crore.

Over-riding opposition from the Ministry of Defence, the Adarsh Cooperative Housing Society, with 71 members, aims to rip up more than 100 trees of the lush Kukri Ecopark on a controversial bit of super-prime land—a little less than an acre valued at Rs 34 crore—abutting critical army and navy defence establishments.

AWOL IN DELHI, COFFEE IN MUMBAI
Thakur is under CBI investigation in a 1998 deal where he allegedly allowed construction on defence land in return for two flats in Nagpur.

Thakur said the search for the land began in 1994. The society got land elsewhere in Colaba but it was cancelled after coastal zoning regulations. Then their attention turned to Cuffe Parade.

And how can the lone JCO on the list, Subedar Ramnarain Achelal Thakur, ‘‘Kargil Hero’’, ever hope to deposit Rs 6 lakh as 20 per cent advance payment once all clearances come through?

‘‘You see, jawans have ancestral lands. They can sell them easily,’’ said Thakur. And then subedar Thakur will collect his family from Bihar, he explained, and translocate them to Cuffe Parade.

WHO WANTS A FLAT
IN CUFFE PARADE?

Some of the 71 members of the Adarsh Cooperative Housing
Society:

• Admiral Madhavendra Singh Bhagwat Singh, Chief of Naval Staff
uRear Admiral Raman Prem Suthan, Fleet Commander, Eastern Fleet
• Lt Gen Gurbaksh Singh Shiv Singh Sihota, GOC, Southern Command
• Major General T K Kaul, GOC, Maharastra and Gujarat Area
• Maj Gen Varinder Singh, former GOC, Maharashtra and Gujarat Area
• Ramchandra Sonelal Thakur, Subdivisional officer, Defence Estates
• Subedar Ramnarain Achelal Thakur, ‘‘Kargil Hero’’
• Major Rajiv Kumar Hitnarain Singh, ‘‘Kargil Hero’’
• Kanhaiyalal V Gidwani, MLC, Shiv Sena, Mamta Kanade, wife of senior IAS officer Ramesh Kanade
• P V Deshmukh, deputy secretary, urban development department

‘‘Since land is a state subject and we cannot interfere directly, we have requested them to reconsider,’’ Director General of the Defence Estates Agency Veena Maitra told The Sunday Express. ‘‘We hope the state will listen to reason.’’

That isn’t happening, primarily because the Adarsh Society is simply not what it claims to be: a housing service for defence personnel.

Its chief promoter is Ramchandra Sonelal Thakur, a junior officer with the Defence Estates agency and who is under CBI scrutiny for allegedly allowing construction on defence land in 1998 in return for two flats in Nagpur.

Says Thakur: ‘‘It (the Adarsh society) is for a noble cause…It’s a cooperative movement and those who don’t get membership are obviously disgruntled…Adarsh is only concerned with the military, all branches of defence forces.’’

But The Sunday Express investigation threw up names of at least six relatives of senior Maharashtra IAS officers. And what’s a Shiv Sena MLC, Kanhaiyalal V Gidwani, doing as the joint secretary of the society?

‘‘Well you know how government is, someone has to help us in dealing with them,’’ Thakur said.

When contacted, Gidwani—there are three Gidwanis in the list—said, ‘‘If we can help good military people, that’s fine.’’ Asked about his presence in the society, the MLC declared he had a ‘‘rightful’’ place in Adarsh Society.

‘‘As members of the legislative council we have some rights,’’ he said. ‘‘We have only helped them with government work.’’

In Mantralay, the seat of Maharashtra’s government, the Adarsh Society’s saga is known for its high stakes and low machinations. The allotment of the land was cleared by the chief minister himself, as are all vacant plots in land-starved Mumbai.

When contacted, Chief Minister Sushilkumar Shinde said: ‘‘I will comment later.’’ However, he did not take calls later and got his official spokesman to say that ‘‘the decision to allot the plot was not taken by Shindesaheb. It might have been taken by his predecessor (Vilasrao Deshmukh).’’

The spokesman said the revenue department—the authority to actually allot the plot—hasn’t yet formally handed over the plot to the society. ‘‘However, the chief minister has said he would look into the case.’’

When and how that will happen isn’t clear but society officials continue to plug a dubious list. For example, Gidwani insists there isn’t ‘‘a single IAS officer’’ in the list and then admits: ‘‘Politically involved people are there…Otherwise how can they get such prime land?’’

The local army commander, Major General T N Kaul (head of the Maharashtra and Gujarat area) did not answer calls or faxed queries about the land. Incidentally, Gen Kaul, too, is a member of the society.

Another member, Chief of Naval Staff Admiral Madhavendra Singh, said he would inform Naval Headquarters when a flat was allotted to him. However, he added: ‘‘I had absolutely no idea about the background of the person who is promoting it (the society).’’

The Ecopark was inaugurated in 1996 by Maj Gen B A Cariappa, then local army commander, but the army, not known to give up land without a fight, even overruled its own estate agency, which pointed out

that the Army, Navy and Air Force are chronically short of land in Mumbai.

The Ecopark came up on reclaimed land and because the land-use pattern was changed (through notifications) it was freed up for residential use, the promoters insist. Defence ministry officials now question that change.

Pradeep Vyas, Mumbai Collector, acknowledged the objections, but no more. ‘‘It is state land, we have all the documents,’’ said Vyas.

Indeed, on April 5, 2000, a letter addressed to the collector from the army’s Maharashtra and Gujarat Area headquarters said the land fell outside the defence boundary, but added: ‘‘Necessary action at your end may be taken as deemed fit for the welfare of service personnel/ex-servicemen/their wives.’’

In January 2003, a letter of intent was issued to the society, which now has to comply with application formalities—providing affidavits about income, occupation—before construction is permitted.

On what basis then was this housing society given the land? ‘‘That,’’ said Vyas, ‘‘is something you should address to the government.’’

Meanwhile, back in Delhi, Thakur’s boss in the Defence Estates Office is fuming because he’s missing from office after being denied leave. ‘‘We are going to proceed against him for this,’’says Maitra. As for his CBI record, she’s waiting for them to finish the inquiry.

With Bhavna-Vij Aurora and Shailesh Gaikwad

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